WASHINGTON - US military chief Admiral Michael Mullen was expected in Israel this week for discussions including Iran, the Pentagon said Wednesday, amid speculation Israel is seeking Washington's tacit approval to strike Tehran's nuclear program.
The press office of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that Mullen left the United States on Tuesday "to go overseas to visit counterparts as well as combatant commands, and Israel is not his only stop."
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters the trip had been on the schedule for "months."
"I believe this is a routine opportunity for Chairman Mullen to engage his counterpart in Israel on military-to-military matters, as he does in much of his travels around the world," Morrell said.
"I will say this, though: Obviously, when Chairman Mullen goes to Israel and speaks with the Israelis, they will no doubt discuss the threat posed by Iran, as we discuss it in this building, in other buildings in this town."
Morrell recalled that Washington was committed to resolving the nuclear threat posed by Iran through diplomacy and international sanctions, "while at the same time holding out the option of a military strike, if necessary."
"But the military strike is not our first choice," he said. "Never has been. And we continue to pursue economic and diplomatic pressures as the policy of this government."
US media have reported that more than 100 Israeli fighter jets participated in a training exercise with Greece earlier this month to prepare for a possible long-distance strike -- a maneuver seen as a warning against Iran.
Iran has defied UN sanctions and international demands by pressing on with its disputed uranium enrichment program, which Washington and Israel fear would be used to build a nuclear weapon.
Israeli Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former defense chief, said in an interview published in the Russian press Wednesday that Iran would be "annihilated" if it tried to attack Israel.
But, he said, "we are not planning any attack against Iran."
According to the US television network CBS, Israel does not want to wait until the new administration that will succeed US President George W. Bush in January to strike Iranian nuclear sites.
"The Israelis have been assured by the Bush administration that the Bush administration will not allow Iran to nuclearize," CBS consultant Michael Oren said.
"Israelis are uncertain about what would be the policies of the next administration vis-a-vis Iran," said Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based research facility.
Speculation about a possible Israeli strike heated up this week after former UN ambassador John Bolton suggested in an interview with London's Daily Telegraph that Israel could attack Iran between the November 4 election and January.
© 2008 Agence France Presse